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Is Bureaucracy as Bad as Critics Suggest

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Bureaucracy is an organisational structure that is seen to be administration based on discipline that an individual must obey because the rule of order is seen to be the best known method of reaching a certain goal. Weber’s writing on bureaucracy is understood most appropriately as an examination of the characteristics of a system of domination employing rational-legal legitimation. Bureaucracy is seen to be rather naive and optimistic organisation style and Bennis believes that it has lost its relevance in a brave new world with dynamic technologies, markets and values. According to Wolin, the 20th century was the age of organisation, bureacracy being its core symbolic value and institutional mechanism, then Castells tells us that the 21st century will be the ‘age of networks’. In recent years, the organisation style has taken a transformational change from a bureaucratic style, into a more network organisation as the bureaucratic days are seen to be outdated.

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Most organisational research presents conflicting views of the outcomes of bureaucracy, the positive view and the negative view. According to the positive view, it provides needed guidance and clarifies responsibilities, thereby easing role stress and helping individuals to be and feel more effective. Furthermore, if employees see at least some overlap between their goals and those of the organisation as a whole, they might also welcome the potential contribution of formalisation to efficiency. Bureaucracy follows the assumption that work can be fulfilling, rather than a disutility.

Following the Weberian Model, Weber suggested that a bureaucratic organisational style can be advantageous in three ways. The first way is that it gives an organisation technical superiority. This allows for an organisation to achieve a high degree of efficiency, predictability and reliability in which is suggested to be unattainable by other forms of organisational structures through detailed technical specification and design.

The second way in which the Weberian Model suggests bureaucracy can be advantageous is through achieving formal rationality. This is where all activity in a bureaucratic organisation is reduced as much as possible to a standardised and formalised routine in which decision-making is dominated by a rational calculation of the most efficient and effective way to achieve any given goal. This has been seen to reduce ‘role stress theory’ given a positive relationship between formalisation and attitudinal outcomes. Numerous studies of this has shown that formalisation reduces role conflict and role ambiguity, which in turn increases work satisfaction and reduces feelings of stress and alienation. Podsakoff, Williams, and Todor replicated this study for both a broader sample of professional and a sample of non professional employees, which found that for both samples, formalisation reduced both role ambiguity and role conflict which therefore reduced alienation of employees. Moreover, Senatra found that the formalisation of rules and procedures reduced role conflict even more than it reduced role ambiguity.

The final way in which the Weberian Model suggests bureaucracy can be advantageous is that it helps managerial control. This allows for a centralised managerial control and co-ordination on the basis of specialised and restricted administrative knowledge and expertise. Weber believes this could be an advantage as managers have a better perspective of the organisation as a whole given their increased knowledge and expertise over employees . Furthermore, it allows for better decision making given a lower-skilled workforce, management would usually employ their greater experiences and knowledge more wisely with decisions and so in turn would allow for the organisation too be more profitable and time consuming.

Furthermore, bureaucracy may not always be as bad as critics suggest as it is seen to be more efficient within different types of organisations. According to Damanpour, the commonly hypothesised negative relationship between innovation and formalisation was true for most studies of services and non-profit organisations, however in manufacturing and for-profit organisations, evidence pointed to a positive correlation between innovation and formalisation and for both product and process innovations.

Moreover, according to contingency theory, the negative attitudinal outcomes related to formalisation are often due to a misalignment of task requirements and the job design itself. Alder and Borys found that employees will react positively when both high levels of formalisation are associated with routine tasks and when low levels of formalisation are associated with non-routine tasks.

However, according to the negative view, the bureaucratic form of organisation stifles creativity, fosters dissatisfaction and demotivates employees therefore suggesting it is a bad method of organisational structure. Furthermore, Kakabadse found that the formalisation of tasks and work processes was positively associated with feelings of powerlessness and self-estrangement of the workers. Alder and Borys also found that bureaucracies create social distance between employees which can also result in low job satisfaction, absenteeism, role stress, low work morale and feelings of powerlessness. This may be because of the policies and procedures that come with bureaucracy are inflexible and can provide consequences and therefore decrease employees motivation and in turn effectiveness and efficiency.

Furthermore, another reason in which critics suggest that bureaucracy can be disadvantageous is through a study carried out by Rousseau. Rousseau studied several departments in an electronics firm and a radio station and found that when formalisation was implemented, such as written rules and procedures employees were made to follow, this was positively related to employee absences, the increased propensity to leave and also psychological and physical stress of the employee, all of which can be directly related to the effectiveness of the employee which may then make bureaucracy an unprofitable organisational structure.

Moreover, Rousseau also found that the formalisation in the electronics firm and radio station also negatively related to innovation and job satisfaction. Bennis also reiterates this and argues that bureaucracy is an ineffective form of organisation style for dealing with innovation, change and environmental complexity. This is a bigger issue today as we now live in a world in which power in the marketplace has shifted to customers and their needs. Customers insist on “better, cheaper, faster, smaller, more convenient and more personalised,” all of which is impossible to achieve under a bureaucratic approach to an organisation as it leaves no room for innovation to improve products to suit today’s customers and therefore according to Forbes, ‘failure to give priority to innovation is an organisational death warrant’.

Bureaucracy has also been discouraged as an organisation style by critics because of its lack of effective coordination. This is also related to the lack of innovation included in bureaucratic organisations as issues in the workplace seem to make their way from one department to another without influencing any real change as employees are following the rules and procedures and are not involved in being innovative and finding solutions.

Bureaucracy can also create a poor functioning organisation. According to the QS System Manual, employees are obliged to document their production processes and identify, describe and document critical control points.This may occur when, for example, given the excessive rules and procedures needed to be followed by employees, if the employees can’t perform a certain task without the approval of multiple layers of management, this will then encourage employees to opt for the more simple and hassle-free tasks that do not require management approval, which then in turn inhibits the organisations productivity and efficiency allowing for potential decreased profitability. This could also be argued for the mass amount of paperwork needed to be filed out for safety precautions for example, therefore encouraging employees to take the ‘easy way out’ and ignore hazards which could then lead to bigger problems for the organisation such as a lawsuit due to a safety violation.

Critics also recognised that with a burecatratic organisations style, new external threats of the organisation are not recognised due to a high degree of formalisation and inflexible work rules and procedures. Therefore, there is a lack of communication between the organisation and its environment which could therefore also lead to inefficiency.

Finally, bureaucracies allow for the different departments of the organisation to create their own working goals in which they aim to pursue, even if that means at the expense of the organisations overall goal. This alienates workers in different departments from each other and decreases the communication of the overall firm, which could lead to inefficiency of the firm as different departments may be working towards different goals which could counteract each other, rather than working coherently.

Today, we have entered a new technological paradigm, centred around electronic based, information and communication technologies with the introduction of new technologies and increased globalisation. We live in a new economy characterised by three fundamental features, informational, global and networked. Firstly, the new economy is informational which is the capacity of generating knowledge and processing and managing information that determines the productivity and competitiveness of the unit. The new economy is also global, its core and strategic activities have the capacity to work on a global scallion real time. Thirdly, the new economy is networked, which is the heart of connectivity of the new global economy and betters communications as the networks in organisation connect themselves on specific business projects, and then switch to another network as soon as soon as the project is finished. These business projects are implemented in fields of activity, which can be product lines or organisational tasks. Castells and other researchers recognised that the purpose of the network model was to de-centralise and empower all of the organisations units and departments as a key factor for successful competition in a globalised economy, even if this means the departments competing against each other they would all work towards the common overall business strategy, helping the business to operate coherently. These networks are based on the sharing information and goals, unlike the bureaucratic approach in which different departments would work independently to achieve their own goals.

Network organisation can be seen as a viable response to bureaucracy as it is highly relevant to the new economic world of today. As it is induced by the network enterprise and globalisation and facilitated by information and communication technologies, it has grown open to the new employment patterns of the development of flexible work as the predominant form of working arrangements today. A network organisation allows for more part-time work, temporary work, self-employment and because of the increased information and communication technologies, even occupational mobility which are now key features of the new layout market. This shows that a network organisation is able to stay current in the new economy which could then help it’s success.

Furthermore, the network organisation is a viable response to the fixed rules and procedures of bureaucracy as it introduces self-programmable labour through network organisation. Self-programmable labour is equipped with the ability to re-train itself and adapt to new tasks and processes and new sources of information in line with the change in technology and demand.

Moreover, the network organisation can be more advantageous than a bureaucratic organisation as it possesses the advantage of flexibility of structure. This means that depending on the environmental or economic conditions, the network organisation can quickly respond to the changing environment or economy which allows for them to take advantage and exploit new opportunities. Also, having a wide network also allows for increased access to information sharing and partnerships in which could be prosperous to the business as it allows them to seize more opportunities. Moreover, organisations in favourable structural positions enjoy social and economic advantages based on their increased access to the relevant information. Burt and Celotto found that individuals with structurally diverse networks are more successful in terms of wages, promotion, job placement, and creativity.

Because of the absence of vertical and horizontal boundaries, along with decentralisation, network organisations contain minimum rank differentials. This has proven to allow for more motivated employees which in turn could create efficiency (Talathi, 2017). This proves to be different to the classical bureaucratic approach of hierarchal control and authority relations which has been positively related to employee demotivation and therefore efficiency.

On the other hand, network organisations may not always be a viable response to a bureaucratic organisations as they massively depend on clear lines of communication to deliver the necessary information and projects within and outside the organisation. This mass dependence on technology to deliver information can disrupt the organisational process in the case of problems with digital communications, for example if a computer crashes or if there are network traffic errors. Furthermore, the success of a network organisation also depends on the willingness of individuals to share information which could be a cost to the organisation as different departments may be competing against each other in their business projects and form an unwillingness to share information which would cost the organisation as a whole.

Moreover, unlike bureaucratic organisations, network organisations do not include clearly defined employee roles and responsibilities, this could cause role ambiguity and according to role stress theory, also increase role stress for the employee as they may then feel alienated due to the confusion of responsibilities, potentially leading to employee inefficiency.

Furthermore, may not always be a viable response as it can also be limiting like a bureaucratic organisation in the sense that it can sometimes limit members from discovering new opportunities and information outside of the network which could then limit the adaptability of the organisation, leading to inefficiency and missed opportunities for success.

In conclusion, bureaucracy is proven to be a very outdated organisational structure with very limited flexibility on the rules and regulations which may demotivate employees. Bureaucratic organisational styles are also very limited in adapting to environmental and economic change which would very much effect its success in today’s ever changing society of demands and technology. Whilst a network organisation helps to include environmental and economical change, keeping the organisation more relevant, it too has its flaws such as the dependancy on technology and its employees to share information. However, in my opinion, a network organisation would still be a more viable response to an outdated bureaucratic organisational style.  

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